Stand Up or Sit Out:
Memories and Musings of a Blind Wrestler,
Runner and All-around Regular Guy
"Is it safe? Is it safe?" Our laughter almost prevented my Achilles guide and me from running while we intoned the famous line from the evil Zell (Lawrence Olivier) in Marathon Man, the Dustin Hoffman flick.
It was the fall of 1989 and marathon fever was again in the air. I did not intend to run that year, having lost much training time the previous summer recovering from my stress fracture. However, with lots of triathlon training under my belt, I felt strong enough to beat the "marathon man's" time around the Central Park reservoir.
In the 1976 film, Dustin Hoffman plays a marathon wannabe, Babe Levy, who gets into all sorts of intrigue because of his older brother's spy antics. In a scene only devout Central Park runners would remember, Babe, training for an unnamed future marathon, sprints up to his girlfriend and asks her "What's the time?"
She answers, "Eleven forty seven. You're faster!"
Dustin Hoffman had just circumnavigated the Central Park reservoir on a cinder track stretching 1.58 miles. His pace, a nifty 7.27 per mile, was the time to beat.
After setting the stopwatch, my partner and I launched at full sprint. After a few hundred yards and unaccustomed to the pace, I quickly grew tired and asked if we could slow down. I wasn't used to hard sprints as I had avoided them to prevent injury ever since that fateful four-mile race the previous spring [when I sustained a stress fracture in my right shin]. Still, I persevered. About halfway around and realizing I may have left my race at the start, I reluctantly reduced speed again. The fact there wasn't a beautiful woman waiting at the end didn't help. Crossing the finish line, I bent over to catch my breath, convinced I had failed in my mission. My running partner informed me we had completed the loop in 11:22, a nifty 7:20 pace. I had beaten the marathon man by twenty-five seconds!
As my partner guided me to a water fountain, I took little solace in recalling that in the movie, Babe appeared fresh after his run, immediately asking his girlfriend to time him in another loop. Two days later, I still ached from the romp. More perturbing, when he made the film, Dustin Hoffman was thirty-seven years old. I had just turned thirty-six.
Returning to the library to gather my belongings after practice, I sat musing about what it would be like to run the marathon. A teammate asked me why I wasn't planning to participate, and hearing my answer, he pronounced that I was fit to "run-walk the thing." "Sign up," he encouraged, "You can walk the entire race if you wish. Just get out there and experience the course and what it's like to be on the road for such a long time." He said this would prepare me in ways I couldn't imagine. For when I was truly ready to run, he predicted, the experience would prove invaluable. I signed up.
Our coach, Patty, introduced me to Amy, a young lawyer who would be my partner for the marathon. We ran two six-mile runs to get our rhythm down and, less than two weeks after meeting each other for the first time, found ourselves at Staten Island's Fort Wadsworth and the start of the 1989 NYC Marathon.
A car service carried Sharon, Amy, and me from midtown to Staten Island. For Sharon, a marathon veteran, the "traditional" bus ride from the library at Forty-second Street had lost its allure. Amy and I, both first-timers, were so nervous, we felt grateful for the assurance of a warm limo. We arrived at Fort Wadsworth where we encountered throngs of runners, bundled in old sweat shirts and pants, milling about the staging area.
Agreeing to reunite at the home of a friend six hours later, Sharon left to join her friends. Amy and I suddenly felt alone among thousands. Contemplating our fate and feeling the chill of the brisk autumn air, we sat on the floor inside one of the giant tents set up for runners to keep warm. Our strategy was clear. I would run slowly until I felt tired and then start sequentially walking and jogging for whatever lengths of time felt comfortable.
We had arranged for [another running partner] Robby to join us when we arrived in Manhattan. At her insistence, Amy would remain my guide all the way to the end. "No matter what," she stated in her most lawyerly voice, "I finish the race with you." Robby's job was to provide moral support and help Amy to maneuver us around logjams of runners toward the end of the race. He would run interference by staying slightly ahead of us and asking runners to let Amy and me pass. Running attached and two abreast, we were less agile than solo runners who, to pass someone, could put on a burst of speed and quickly step around slower runners in front of them.
Trying to stay warm until race time, Amy and I alternately sipped hot chocolate and, along with scores of anxious marathoners, made frequent visits to the latrines set up on the perimeter of the staging area. Men had it easier than women, pissing in a bush or ceremoniously off the side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Gratefully, the public address announcer finally called us out to the starting area. Following a time-worn tradition, we tossed away the sacrificial sweat pants and shirts that had kept us warm. "What do we do with them?" I asked. "Just toss them anywhere." Amy chuckled, "People are tossing sweat stuff into the trees." I didn't take the time to consider the social welfare or ecological implications. Somehow, it was enough to know that the marathon officials, having taken care of everything else to this point, would deal with the mess, hopefully by donating the clothing to homeless shelters.
Garbed in our shorts and T-shirts, we moved onto the upper deck of the bridge. I held tightly to Amy's arm to prevent us from getting separated by the swarm of runners intently surging toward the zones indicated by our race numbers. A computerized system had taken information from our race applications, assigned numbers, and specified where we should stand to start the race. Elite runners, men on one side and women on the other, stood up front. The rest of us lined up in accordance with our previous racing record. To make it fair, a correction factor programmed into the computer subtracted a preset number of minutes and seconds from the finishing time of runners starting in various zones back in the pack. The system worked remarkably well. Today, computerized chips attached to the laces of running shoes individually identify runners when they cross the start line and register their exact start time. At the finish line, the runner's race time is similarly registered and sent to the computer for processing.
We stood still for what seemed an eternity, waiting for the mayor to start the race. Several news helicopters, covering the start, hovered nearby. Runners pressed against us on all sides. Then for no apparent reason, everyone began to cheer.
Far ahead of us, a gun or horn must have sounded, but we couldn't hear it. Nonetheless, we knew that the race had started because as tightly packed as we were, the crowd compacted even more. We surged forward, imperceptibly at first. After fifteen seconds or so, we began walking. In a few seconds, we commenced slowly jogging, then a faster job, and finally, breaking free of the crowd, Amy and I began to run. A wave of nausea passed through me. Clenching my jaw in an effort to suppress it, I muttered, "I guess this is it." The long run ahead of us conjured both a sense of relief and trepidation.
It had seemed to take forever to reach the start line, but when we did, we were on a downhill slope and running freely. Impulsively, I began to run too fast. Sensing the influence of an adrenalin rush, Amy held me back, saying, "Remember the plan. We go slowly all the way."
The music of bands lining the streets of Brooklyn and loud cheers from onlookers spurred me forward. Periodically, I sensed people from the sidelines drawing close to me and wondered if the entire race would be this way. When Amy didn't flinch, I refocused and kept on jogging. When little children stepped onto the course to touch our legs and hands, Amy told me, if I tried, I might be able to touch their hands as well. I reached out twice and came up with air both times.
A flash of anger and sadness disturbed my concentration. Had the children pulled their hands away when they saw me reaching in their general direction? All they wanted, I surmised, was a quick, gentle touch. I grew concerned that my apparent groping might be intimidating them. It was unfair, I thought, that I couldn't have fun like everyone else. For some reason, at that moment, I deeply wished to touch the hand of one of the children. When I mentioned this to Amy in what I admit was a mournful tone, she told me not to worry and to focus on the twenty-five miles left in front of us. I complied, returning my thoughts to where I was and what lay ahead. However, the impression stayed with me.
I managed to jog all the way to the Queensboro Bridge, about fifteen miles into the race. The left side of the bridge deck was covered with carpets to protect our feet from the steel gratings that comprised the road surface. A lane was left open on the right side for emergency vehicles. Amy and I decided it would be judicious not to run the uphill portion of the westbound bridge, so we walked the first half of the span singing, "Feeling Groovy."
Halfway across, the bridge begins its downward slope. We recommenced our jog, making our way toward land. Following the off-ramp that sweeps a wide left turn in order to merge with First Avenue, we reached the promised land: Manhattan. Heading north, we scanned the throngs lining the avenue in search of Robby.
Thrilled for having come so far and relieved to be in familiar territory, I felt renewed confidence that I could indeed finish the run. We found additional comfort when, exactly as planned, Robby leaped onto the course from his perch on the west side of First Avenue at Sixty-fifth Street.
By the time we traversed First Avenue, crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge, and entered the Bronx, I was hurting mightily. The Van Cortlandt Track Club, with whom I had practiced, had a table alongside the course; and its captain, Dennis, pulled us over and, while massaging our legs, made us drink some water. Then abruptly, he sent us on our way. "Start running, or you'll stiffen up," he ordered.
We crossed a bridge at Third Avenue, entered Harlem, wound our way around Marcus Garvey Park, and found ourselves heading south on Fifth Avenue. The people of Harlem cheered us on. I thought this remarkable because by this time, they had seen the lead runners pass at least two hours earlier. Still, they made us feel like first-place racers.
Robby ran ahead, calling, "Blind runner!" The waves parted, and we trudged on, passing small packs of walkers, joggers, and the occasional individual running backward. I later learned that running backward provides an opportunity to rest certain aching leg muscles while allowing the runner to make some small progress along the course.
We entered Central Park and, as Dick and Patti had instructed, walked the long upgrade to the inner drive. (NYRRC has since eliminated this particular hill from the course.) Turning left, we grudgingly staggered into a slow job. I thought I heard Dick's voice urging us on. "No," Amy gasped, growing exhausted. "That's not him."
A mile or so later, disoriented and my right knee aching fiercely, I asked Amy where we were. Robby, running ahead of us and routinely peeking over his shoulder to monitor our status, saw Amy, barely able to speak, motioned to him. Calling out above the noise of the hundreds of people cheering from the sidelines, he encouraged us to keep running. "We're close to Seventy-second Street. You've got only two miles or so to go."
We exited the park onto Central Park South, turned right, and headed west toward the end of the race. Somewhere around Sixth Avenue, I suddenly felt wonderful. Feeling no pain, I asked Amy if she could run faster. Apparently feeling the same rush of adrenalin as I did, she agreed.
Increasing our speed, we scooted onto Central Park West and turned right into the park. A few dozen yards later, we made a final left turn and approached the finish line.
As we ran up the final hill, I recall three things: the din of the crowd in the bleachers, a sensation that I was sprinting, and total separateness from my body. All the pain and fatigue disappeared.
We passed under a banner and through the finish line. The photo shows Amy and me running in good form, bodies straight and heads held high. The clock, visible in the photo, shows us crossing the line at 4:36:43.
While Robby peeled off and jogged around the finish area, Amy and I passed through one of several rope corridors set up so race officials could tear off the lower corner of the race numbers pinned to our shirts. These contained bar codes which were fed into a processor to record our identities and race times. As soon as we emerged at the other end of the rope corridor and stood still, I felt immediately nauseated. Amy short-circuited my instinct to bend over by tugging my shirt. "Stand up and walk," she urged. "They won't let you stay here, and you'll feel better if you keep walking."
Robby draped Mylar blankets over both of us and thrust cups of water into our hands. His voice sounded distant as he said, "Drink this and keep walking. There's a table with bagels several yards from here."